Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

email: jasonsoon AT



  • Jason Soon
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    Saturday, August 24, 2002
    Gittins on law and economics
    Alex Robson explains why Ross Gittins confuses the law of contract and the law of tort.
    Greenhouse petitions
    Quiggin wants to call a truce, and that is fine with me as I rather accidentally stumbled into war. Quiggin does add one reference to Nordhaus’s signing of the US petition. I should just make the point that support of the US petition does not automatically mean support of the Australian petition. The US is the largest greenhouse gas producer in the world. Whether or not it is a good idea for it to sign up, it is a different question whether Australia should sign up given that the US has not. Perhaps the US will be more likely to sign up if Australia does – but I doubt it.

    As Nordhaus states in a recent paper:
    "The Kyoto Protocol is defective on both efficiency criteria because it omits a substantial fraction of emissions (thus failing the spatial criterion) and has no plans beyond the first period (thus not attending to the temporal dimension). Indeed, the two largest emitters (the U.S. and China) are not even included in the current protocol. Figure 5 shows the most recent estimates of the abatement costs under different trading regimes for the original Kyoto Protocol using the RICE-2001 model.1 Because it limits trading to a small part of the world and ignores the intertemporal dimension, the Kyoto Protocol is an extremely costly treaty and makes only modest progress in slowing global warming." [bottom of page 9]

    He makes a strong case for using a price rather than quota based approach to cut greenhouse gas emissions (if you believe cutting greenhouse gas emissions will reduce global warming).

    Multiculturalism gone mad
    Thanks to Tim Blair for pointing out this very enlightening BBC site which allows people to post comments regarding the infamous Nigerian stoning to death punishment about to be administered. There are numerous apologias for this barbaric practice from Muslims living in the UK and in other Western countries which is disturbing enough but by far this is the most sickening comment of the lot:

    We must be careful when applying our own culture and concept of morality to other cultures. I cannot say if it's good or bad that some cultures choose to continue with traditional views and are unwilling to accept new and modern views on morality, human rights and ethics. I do know that our modern society rarely accepts traditional ideals, perhaps we should be more open minded, even when our initial reaction is to fight it as a human rights violation.
    Jonathan Mayo, USA

    And no, Don before you jump in, I do not believe there is a contradiction between my own professed views on morality (which try to avoid reliance on some arbitrary 'ugh' factor) and my disgust here. No doubt there is an emotional 'ugh' factor to my disgust which I rightly concede as a taste but tied in with this is my own judgement on the worthiness of such a culture and morality - a consequentialist approach to morality does not lead one to moral relativism. Quite the opposite - it is precisely when debates about morality cannot be reduced to debates about the underlying rationality of the institutional systems they produce that one gets incommensurable moralities. It is when this happens that one gets the slide to relativism unless one returns to some untestable idea of morality flowing from God given rights - thus Thomism is a perfectly consistent system of morality but it relies on metaphysical predicates that secularists like myself cannot swallow. Thus I will continue unapologetically using 'morality' as a shorthand for the presumptions I hold regarding the rationality of a system in promoting human interests. And I will indulge by joining the chorus of disgust from this case in Nigeria. There is nothing substantially different between Nigeria and the West and between Nigerians and other human beings that support the case that the system used in Nigeria is in any way proportionate or necessary to Nigerians' interests.

    People like this Jonathan Mayo represent a modern paradox. I just cannot imagine someone from the mainstream Right making the argument that this worthy sensitive Mayo fellow makes. There was a time when the preponderance of people who identified with the Left were the primary defenders of the great system and heritage that gave us the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. There was a time when such people believed that just as the principles of bridge building apply as much in Nigeria as they do in Australia, so do the principles of statecraft and liberal constitutionalist democracy and the cultural norms underlying this

    (Note I said liberal constitutionalist democracy - not democracy. I am emphatically not a democrat, I am against simple minded populist democracy, I am a liberal democrat which is a different thing altogether and implies inherent limits on what any majority can do, however loudly they may clamour for it. People who attack tyranny using the rhetoric of democracy alone are muddying the waters of debate. Democracy has an instrumental value - it is the most, no, the only peaceful way of changing governments which in turn is something that has to be done to prevent tyranny and reduce principal-agent problems in governance. However democracy itself is only valuable as a means of preserving a liberal-democratic-constitutionalist order ).

    For after all, the principles of brudge building are ultimately aimed at promoting human interests, yes? So if there is one set of such principles which are best aimed at promoting human interests in bridge building, why not one political and cultural system which can similarly be said to be universally applicable and good for everyone? Unless that is, Nigerians or other Third World peoples are altogether different from other peoples?

    That time is no more as many on the Left have become increasingly jittery and apologetic about claiming that the West, even if by historical accident, did chance upon the system (arguably yet to be fully fleshed out but with clearly discernible general principles) which is probably the best system for humans to live under. Many have had their minds poisoned by the ideology of anti-imperialism and radical multiculturalism. There are arguably more on the mainstream right nowadays who have picked up the mantle of championing Liberal Universalism while a subset of the academic left, at least, retreat into their incommensurabilities, their sensitive political correctness and their anti-imperalism. This must end and there are encouraging signs it has - for example, Chris Hitchens' willingness to call Islamofascism Islamofascism. I shall admit one thing - the only reason not to advocate a return to Liberal Imperialism is for prudential reasons, not because there is anything inherently wrong with the idea. (for one thing we simply do not have the resources) The Roman Empire, the Austro Hungarian empire and the British empire arguably made things a lot better for many of the societies they conquered - and left behind societies which were better off than before.

    Valuing 'self determination' for its own sake is muddled thinking if all it means is that people get to be oppressed by people of the same colour - it is an implicit endorsement of the sort of primitive tribalism that underlies ideologies like Nazism and is the most fundamentally evil force in human history. There is nothing inherently valuable about 'national self determination' than the sort of atavistic kick one gets from barracking for a football team - exactly the same sorts of ugly emotions except indulged in as statecraft.

    Some cultures and beliefs are worthless sewers and this will always be so - it is a betrayal of the interests of people living under such cultures to be 'culturally sensitive'. It is a betrayal of the interests of one's fellow human beings not to argue the obvious - that the sooner the Rest is like the West the better.

    Friday, August 23, 2002
    Ask and ye shall receive…the survey result you want.

    When is a survey, not a survey? When the answers which it is looking for are heavily suggested by the questions themselves. I’m talking about this survey by the National Union of Students. The survey is intended for women who live or have lived in a residential college.

    Whilst surveying women on their college experience could give some valuable insight into how to improve the overall college experience, this survey is not going to be much use. For starters, we’ve got a huge problem with self-selection bias. What type of women are going to be browsing the NUS web site and be inclined to fill in such a survey? Where are the mechanisms to prevent deliberate rigging of the online survey? What is stopping men from filling in the survey?

    And then it’s not like the questions are suggesting a particular answer are they. For example,

    “Sexual harassment is any kind of unwelcome behaviour that's of a sexual nature. Some examples of sexual harassment include: being called sexist, sexual names, being touched, or being pressured into sexual acts.

    Have you or anyone you know at college ever experienced sexual harassment at college? If so, what happened?”

    Pardon me? It’s sexual harassment to call someone sexist? On this count John Howard is sexually harassed on an almost daily basis... and frequently by NUS.

    And then,

    “Are you, or do you know anyone, who is openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or queer at college? If so, how are you/they treated by the other students and by the college staff? What do you think is the prevailing opinion of queer sexuality at college? “

    Objection your honour – calls for the witness (um respondent) to speculate on the opinion of others. Then there is this fantastic question

    “Some colleges have notorious traditions of initiation practices, particularly for first-years. Often these seem to involve nudity, or sexual acts, or other events designed to humiliate. Do you know of any such activities at your college or at your uni? Maybe at another college? If so, what are they? “

    Nothing like suggesting a response to an exceptionally open ended question. Even if the survey respondent themselves has never personally been involved in any activities like this, if they have even heard of something like this happening they will answer yes.

    And the survey goes on like this. What worries me so much about this survey is that NUS is no doubt going to use the results of this to push its predetermined agenda on women’s issues, affirmative action and the like. This despite the fact that survey isn’t worth the cyberspace it takes up given its myriad of flaws. Meanwhile it brings us no closer to a proper understanding of college culture and gender relations on campus.

    One more reason for voluntary student unionism I think.
    Guest Bloggers and The Catallaxy Collective?

    Three posts and your out? That’s Tim Dunlop’s suggestion when it comes to guest bloggers on Catallaxy Files. Tim comes to this conclusion in a blog post where he praises the concept of guest bloggers, but argues that

    “Nonetheless, there are guests and guests and I think in the case of Mark Harrison they ought to apply the well-known fish/guest rule, namely, that guests, like fish should be tossed out after three days. Or if you prefer, three posts. In which case Mark is past his use-by date.”

    On the topic of guest bloggers on Catallaxy, this constitutes my 50th post since the archives where wiped earlier this year. Andrew Norton, another guest blogger, has been relatively quiet since his flurry of posts on education reform and policy. I’m also yet to see a post by Teresa – a shame since I think she would have some interesting insights to offer.
    Whining Farmers

    The National Farmers Federation (NFF) is at it again:

    “the NFF executive committee met in Canberra early this week and voted to maintain its policy that it could not agree to a sale [of Telstra] until there was "equality" of service between the city and the bush…

    … said the farm body would tell the inquiry that Telstra had not met the requirements laid out in the first inquiry by Tim Besley, particularly in northern, central and western Australia, because Telstra had concentrated on rural towns and not the needs of farmers…

    … "It is about adequacy of services and part of that is measuring against services in the city," he said.”

    So, it’s not enough that infrastructure in rural towns is bought up to the same standard as the city. Now even farmers in remote areas must have access to the latest and greatest technologies under the same conditions as those living in cities. (ironically I live in Sydney and can’t get access to either cable or ADSL)

    Now in an ideal world we would all have access to the latest and greatest technologies at affordable prices. However the diffusion of new technologies rarely (if ever) follows this pattern. Telecommunications technologies (perhaps excluding satellite) are almost always going to appear first in cities, and be cheaper in the cities during the early stages of diffusion and adoption.

    Why? – Firstly, there is the larger market. A firm introducing a new technology is going to introduce it into the largest market with the highest potential first, then move on to more marginal markets as the level of adoption increases. Secondly, the higher population density of cities typically allows economies of scale to be realised sooner. Put these two factors together and it should hardly be surprising that most new telecommunications technologies will appear first in major cities, then gradually spread to more marginal markets.

    (as a side note – some rural/remote localities might get ‘wired up’ as part of linking major cities together but for the most part the cities will be first with the new technology and the first to experience the benefits of competition)

    Thus, with the exception of something like satellite, the only way to have comparable city/rural services at the same point in time would be to have some fairly hefty cross-subsidies in place, effectively transferring wealth from the urban to rural areas. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the NFF’s motives.
    Another Oz law prof blogger
    A belated welcome to new Oz blogger Ken Parish who has already linked to me. Ken is now the 3rd Australian academic to join the blogosphere as far as I know and he follows the consistently excellent Kim Weatherall as the 2nd Australian legal academic to blog.

    Thursday, August 22, 2002
    Life’s Too Short to be Politically Correct

    That’s the tag line belonging to the blog of Rachel Lucas. If you surf polti-blogs of the free-market/libertarian persuasion you may have already stumbled upon Rachel’s blog. If not, what are you waiting for! Rachel might label herself as a Republican, but libertarians will still probably find themselves nodding and going “Oooh Yes” an awful lot as they read her site. Rachel is currently having a go at Al Gore:

    “I also found a speech by Al Gore in which he says, ‘Americans don't need fancy rhetoric and false promises on Social Security. They need leaders that understand that Social Security and Medicare are solemn compacts between generations that must be honored and protected.’

    If we don't need rhetoric and false promises, then why is your mouth making words, Mr. Gore”

    Blog consensus
    What do I, Whacker Textor, Commie Corr, Tim Dunlop and 'The Don' Arthur agree on? That the Devine Miranda's latest column isn't one of her best efforts, to put it gently.
    Devine madness
    Why the hell is Miranda Devine starting to sound like Dr Laura? The estimable Don Arthur criticises her latest rant against gay marriage but doesn't go far enough given the blatant idiocy she's writing in today's paper.

    For instance she comments on a Democrats Senator's views on marriage that
    "It should not be used as a tool to discriminate against people and relationships that do not fit into an often unspoken but religious agenda."

    such a view would in her words "define marriage into meaninglessness". Excuse me Miranda but how many people nowadays are really consciously all that religiously observant nowdays? How many people enter into a marriage seeing it as some sort of religious obligation to procreate rather than a ceremony that affirms their companionate urges? Are people who don't enter into marriage with religious frameworks in mind entering into meaningless marriages? Then you have just condemned a large section of the Australian population.

    More importantly why does she think that the underlying idea of marriage is based on religion rather than more pragmatic considerations common to human nature such as the desire to enter into long term contractual relationships for mutual benefit? And why should this underlying idea be destroyed by allowing other groups who have the same desires to have equal access under the law to form similar contractual relationships but who differ only in respect of the people they choose to enter into these bonds with?

    More laughable are Miranda's following comments:

    The fact is that the push for same-sex marriage is not about strengthening or enhancing the institution of marriage, as Greig claims. It is about destroying it. Marriage, as the basis of the nuclear family, is the last bastion of bourgeois morality, to the eternal disgust of the intellectual classes. And what better way to destroy bourgeois morality than to destroy the institution that underpins it? And what better way to destroy that institution than to redefine it so broadly that it is rendered meaningless?

    Why else would gays want to embrace an institution that stands for everything they reject - heterosexual commitment between a man and a woman, usually with the aim of producing children?

    Really? Andrew Sullivan doesn't think so. He wants gays to embrace marriage and he wants gays to be allowed to marry precisely because he likes the bourgeois notion underlying marriage (and no, I see no reason why the case for 'bougeois lifestyles' should be based on religious foundations. Bourgeois lifetyles are eminently sensible lifestyles - there is a strong pragmatic case for living such lifestyles) - and he even thinks that gays would be better off entering into this sphere. The idea that people who favour gay equality in marriage are out to destroy bourgeois lifestyles is deranged. The people most likely to destroy bourgeois lifestyles are closet theocrats like Miranda Devine who argue as if the underlying case for such lifestyles resides in the ridiculous metaphysical concoctions of ancient feuding desert peoples. This is the best way of discrediting the case for bourgeois morality, and I speak as a proud bougeois.

    The only issue is whether allowing more parties access to this underlying contractual framework would undermine its effectiveness and I see no reason for this nor has Devine provided any evidence or arguments as to how there could be such an undermining - after all these excluded groups want access precisely in order to have their own long term commitments affirmed.

    As for the idea that people enter marriage with the ultimate aim of producing children - well, what about all the straight couples who do not want to have children and nonetheless get married? Apparently Devine seems to be against 'partnerships' too so it seems there's nowhere a great proportion of people can go in Devine's Australia.

    Wednesday, August 21, 2002
    Quiggin thinks I am “quick to impugn the integrity of signatories of the pro-Kyoto petition” and engage in ‘slimy innuendo’.

    I think Quiggin should read the blog before going off the deep end.

    First, I did not assert anything – I merely quoted what Alex Robson had sent me. But it does seem reasonable to me that the statement "policy options are available that would slow climate change without harming employment or living standards in Australia" is "completely false"

    Alex’s petition points out, “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concedes that full Kyoto compliance would reduce predicted warming to the year 2100 by only a fraction of one degree.” If that is true, then surely anything Australia does will not slow climate change?

    My position on inefficient subsidies, pricing and inefficient property right allocation is that fixing them up is a good idea – but really has very little to do with global warming and does not provide any argument to undertake costly measures to reduce global warming. It would be a good idea without global warming. If you think there are further benefits from the greenhouse gas emissions, then that is icing on the cake.

    You aks "Why was an identical statement signed by over 2000 US economists including eight Nobel prize winners and William Nordhaus, the main expert cited in your counterpetition?" and state "The anti-Kyoto counterpetition puts a lot of stress on alternative proposals for international agreements to reduce CO2 emissions"

    I’ve just re-read the counter-petition. It is here. I can’t see any mention of Nordhaus.

    Why do some people take different positions on complex policy issues? I guess people disagree with you John because they are stupid and evil.

    The counter petition does not put ‘a lot of stress on counter proposals’. It simply points out that it is not true that serious alternatives to the Kyoto Protocol have not been put forward as your petition claims.

    As for lack of integrity, I was referring to content of Alex’s message. It appears one academic group is willing to say contradictory things to different audiences, depending on who is paying them and another were not willing to take their names off the list even when they agreed it was false.

    As for the teaching load comment, I was just speculating why some economists seem to support something they disagree with and are unwilling to publicly change their minds. I was just referring the time honoured means for senior people to get at junior people they don’t like for one reason or another – and it has certainly happened in the ANU economics department in the past and almost everywhere I imagine.

    In “Resolving the University crisis” a submission to the senate inquiry on higher education, Quiggin himself refers to the “increasing willingness of university management to victimise critics” and that “university administration is still largely made up of former academics”. p.7-8

    My experience with his department is that it took no pressure from the administration to do things like award an honours degree to someone who plagiarised his thesis from a journal article (and the fact he had been found guilty of that is not information available to outsiders).

    So far as I’m aware Quiggin has nothing to do with allocating teaching loads. I was under the impression he wasn’t involved much with the day to day affairs of the department at all, but I can’t say I’ve taken an interest.

    Quiggin wrote the other day that “the right can dish it out, but they can’t take it”. Quiggin can’t take it even when its not directed at him.
    The Australia Institute has issued a petition of Australian academic economists that calls on the Australian Government to ratify the Kyoto Protocol without delay. The petition was organised by Clive Hamilton and John Quiggin

    Alec Robson is one of the organisers of a counter petition (which I have signed, Jason hasn't). He informs me that:

    “1. The Institute for Public Affairs in Melbourne has done quick phone surveyof about 15 of the people that signed Hamilton's petition. Apparently, just about all of the people phoned did not read what they signed. When confronted with statements like "policy options are available that would slow climate change without harming employment or living standards in Australia" (Aus Inst. Petition, point 4), they agreed that this was a completely false statement. Even so, none of them wanted their names taken off the list.

    2. Many economists at the Center for Policy Studies at Monash (COPS) signed their name to the Australia Institute's petition. The interesting thing is that COPS contributed to a report by Allens Consulting for the Vic Govt. Page 35 of that report states:
    "This report suggests that the cost to Australia of complying with the Protocol would be significant and that the burden would be inequitably distributed between regions."

    COPS has apparently also done other work on the issue, and this other work also shows that the claim that "policy options are available that would slow climate change without harming employment or living standards in Australia is patently false.”"

    It seems that Australian academia hasn’t changed – integrity is in short supply and disagreeing with the left is not the easiest way to get ahead. Be prepared for a higher teaching load next year Alex!

    Tuesday, August 20, 2002
    Shocking ...
    I have never been a great fan of Archbishop George Pell but this news is absolutely shocking:

    The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, has stepped aside from his job pending an inquiry into sex abuse allegations against him.

    Dr Pell immediately issued a statement saying the allegations were lies. "I deny them totally and utterly," he said. "The alleged events never happened, I repeat emphatically, that the allegations are false."

    The church has appointed retired Victorian Supreme Court judge Alec Southwell to investigate the allegation.

    The church's National Committee for Professional Standards (NCPS), established to deal with sex abuse allegations within the church, said Archbishop Pell had been accused of molesting a 12-year-old boy when he was a trainee priest in the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

    Innocent until proven guilty, let us remember that, but this is a serious allegation. A 12 year old is very different from a 16 year old - this is far worse than what Kirby was accused of. The best outcome for all parties would be a proper investigation that establishes definitively the truth or falsity of these allegations. If they are false then this is a very unfortunate thing to happen to him. If they are true, then his name deserves to be mud especially in light of his professed 'holier than thou' stances of late. However no one can find glee in this, not even his philosophical enemies.
    Idiots of the world unite
    The paleo-wackotarians link to this ad for the new mag edited by convicted drug smuggler and spoilt anti-semitic rich kid Taki (he and the Royal Family are perfect examples of why welfare dependency is also bad for the upper classes) and the US's high IQ version of Pauline Hanson, Pat Buchanan. It reads:

    Our aim is to rekindle within the conservative movement and the Republican Party the necessary debates on the key questions of patriotism versus globalism, prudent realism versus reckless interventionism. We take to heart the idea that the United States should be “A Republic, Not an Empire;” we believe the United States should slow down its rate of immigration; we are skeptical about many of the benefits promised by the new gods of the global economy.

    In other words, 'isolationism', idiotic protectionist and agrarian socialist economics, and anti-immigrationism all rolled into one ugly little package.
    Free will is irrelevant
    In his posting below, Mark raises the issue of whether it is at all relevant to the effectiveness of criminal law that more and more genetic and environmental determinants of the propensity to criminal behaviour are being discovered everyday. It's worth clearing this up once and for all. The answer is clearly 'No' because, as Mark points out, the deterrent effects of the law also form part of the human organism's environment. In fact we need never resolve the issue of whether there is such a thing as free will to come to this conclusion (which is fortunate since as an agnostic on these mattersand a soft determinist, I find it impossible to envisage how this can ever be resolved at all).

    Here's a simple but outlandish example that may explain why.

    Think of humans as billiard balls on a billard table which has a game in progress. The movements of the billiard balls, the way they collide with each other, their final arrangements are all ultimately determined by the weight of the balls, the surface tension with the table, the momentum of the balls as they collide with each other and so forth, In theory all these variables if they can be measured can be put into a machine that churns out the prediction of how these balls eventually turn out. I know about the progress in chaos theory, etc but that only goes to practicality of measurement and calculation. It is not at all illogical to say that the movements of these balls *are* determined by the interaction of all those variables. Now, this is picture represents the determinist view of human behaviour and human nature. Given particular variables, the outcome is an inevitable consequence of those variables. That in practice we probably can't even properly measure and calculate these things to get a perfect prediction is certainly comforting to our sense of not being determined but most probably all this shows is that our sense of having free will is an illusion (and according to Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine a useful illusion fostered by evolution).

    Where does criminal law fit into this? Think of criminal law as something which aims to change the outcome of crunching all those variables together from A to B. i.e. we want the balls to be arranged in one way rather than another. By analogy we want there to be less murders, rapes, etc. Criminal law then solely becomes one additional variable that influences the outcome - using our billiard ball analogy, perhaps there is a way of facilitating an outcome of B rather than A *even if the all other variables are the same* i.e. the game is played exactly the same way with the same momentum accorded to the balls by the players etc by - *shaking the table*. This is an outlandish example but in theory it would be possible to influence the outcome of how the balls arrange themselves by shaking the table in an appropriate manner.How the table is shaken simply becomes another input. Note the balls haven't suddenly acquired free will but nonetheless in theory we can rearrange the outcomes of how they might come together.

    The example is complete - we have just proved that criminal laws that treat humans *as if* they had free will and rationality by charging them various 'prices' for antisocial conduct (i.e. laws with particular deterrent values given the probability of apprehension and conviction multiplied by the severity of the sentence) work even if humans *really* have no free will. Note I am not saying that humans really have no free will - only that we need not assume they do i.e. determinism of some kind doesn't rule out the application of rational choice theory in human affairs.
    Society made me do it

    It seems from this report that the rapist got 55 years because he refused to play the game and express 'remorse' (most criminals manage to summon up some remorse at being caught) or blame someone else (society, a poor childhood, whatever is convenient) for his crime. This robbed the judge of the usual excuse for imposing a light penalty – and speculations about the psychological nature of the convicted criminal are only ever used to reduce sentences.

    What usually happens is that the rules of evidence suddenly get thrown out of the window and untested self-serving assertions from convicted criminals are suddenly taken as gospel. Those who do have knowledge about the criminal’s background and motivation – the criminal, his family and friends – have every incentive to deceive the court. Nor do we know how many have a similar childhood and don’t commit crimes.

    Of course, no-one has a perfect childhood. I’m sure Nick Whitlam will soon start talking about how Gough was always away politicking when he was a kid.

    Determining the relative influence of myriad different environmental factors is an impossible task, even with full information. I know of at least two brilliant economists (one is Walter Oi, the other is an Australian who will remain nameless) who spent part of their childhood interned in camps during World War 2 because their parents were the wrong nationality. The one I know attributes his intellect to the stimulation he received because there was absolutely nothing for the adults to do in the camps except play with the baby.

    Just wait for the excuse ‘I was in Woomera’ to be seized upon to as a reason not to punish some criminal by some judge keen to demonstrate his moral superiority. You can bet the judge won’t worry about
    1. Whether those from Woomera are in fact more likely to commit crimes
    2. Whether they were more likely to commit crimes before they got there (which is why they were there in the first place)
    3. Whether once this becomes known, their incentives to commit crime increases.

    After all, even if environment is largely responsible for crime – punishment imposed by the legal system is part of the environment.

    Monday, August 19, 2002
    Don Arthur on utilitarianism
    Don has my position on moral philosophy almost right, but not quite in his response to my response. He writes:

    I see utilitarianism, welfare economics and other consequentialist theories as moral theories. Jason Soon, however, likes to think utilitarianism is about rationality while morality is about taste. Philosophy may throw up irritating and intractable problems but normative economics doesn't cut the Gordian knot, and welfare economics is not a subset of positive economics.

    I do see consequentalism (which is probably the best way of categorising my views) as a moral theory but it is a moral theory in the sense that I think it is the way forward in developing a moral theory that ultimately won't fall prey to either some sort of infinite regress or some sort of arbitrary cutting off point where we conclude that something is moral because it's moral. You know? Why is that moral? Because it is.. So Don is right in a way, I do see the choices as the following:
    1) either morality can only be justified by reference to some 'ugh' factor or
    2) discourses on morality can be reduced to discourses on the rationality of design of particular conventions and social institutions i.e. one can resolve moral issues without reference to some arbitrary 'ugh' factor but solely by appeal to rational inter-subjective argument based on commensurable evaluations of what agents acting in furtherance of their long term self-interests would agree to enter into.

    Thus my high regard for exercises such as for instance, John Rawls' Theory of Justice which even though it arrives at policy conclusions I disagree with are at least on the right track. I believe this mode of argument can certainly be enriched by public choice theory, for instance, and an awareness of the limits on design set by evolution. I would certainly not even brush off Peter Singer's attempts at reconciling evolution with leftist social theory.

    Don is also correct to link my position to that of Posner's and he is also amazingly correct in linking to the following summary of Posner:

    According to McClay, Posner's "outlook represents the most recent incarnation of one of American social thought's recurrent tendencies - its quest to overcome the inherently divisive and coercive considerations of moral judgement (particularly when such judgements are based upon religious conviction) by reducing social conflicts to neutral, value-free problems."

    I plead guilty to this as well. I feel it is the only way for humanity to go because the alternative is for incommensurable cultures perpetually fighting over their differences. I would like to think that some form of consequentialism which transfers endless fighting over tastes into at least testable fighting over consequences which resembles more an intellectual debate can be a universal solvent of the hatreds that have wrecked humanity's history. If the price to pay is a loss of the sense of the sacred and magical, divinity and human uniqueness, I think it a reasonably low price to pay.
    Chicago School man joins Catallaxy Files
    I usually have a short intro for my guest bloggers before they blog but I forgot in the case of Mark Harrison (see his post below) but I'll do so now, anyway. Mark is a former academic economist from the ANU. He has a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. It will be interesting to read any future exchanges between Mark and his former colleague, John Quiggin. In the meantime, read his post below.
    Crime and punishment continued

    I’ll thank Jason for giving me access to this blog by immediately criticising his analysis of the 55 year rape sentence.

    First, it is not clear that the result is to award nearly the same penalty for rape as for murder. The expected penalty is the sentence times the probability of conviction. If the probability of conviction for rape is much lower than for murder then the expected sentence is much lower, even if the penalty for a convicted criminal is the same. If a rapist is considering murdering the rape victim then the probability of conviction would likely rise if he did (a murder is more likely to be reported, he can’t argue he thought she consented to be murdered, etc).

    Second, even if the penalty for rape was increased to the same as for murder we need to worry about the elasticity of supply of both crimes. The increase in the penalty, as Jason points out, will encourage some rapists to commit murder. It will also deter some rapes. The net effect is an empirical matter, but it seems to me that the number of people who will decide to go out and rape and murder will be small compared with the number of rapes deterred.

    As for the issue of the optimal combination of sentence and probability of detection, it is certainly efficient to move towards lower cost penalties (fines, slave labour, hanging etc) that avoid the costs imposed on the taxpayer by imprisonment. But lets not make the same mistake the lefties always make - figure out what is efficient and assume that is what the government does. Lefties ask what would I like the government to do? A better question is: what is the government likely to do given that it is not a collection of benevolent efficiency maximisers but an institution controlled by self-interested people with the same limitations as the rest of us. What should the legal rules be, given how government will act if those are the legal rules? We need to worry about the incentives of the enforcers: police, courts, legislatures. The best argument against efficient punishments is the incentive it creates for the police to frame people to collect bribes.

    Sunday, August 18, 2002
    Don Arthur and the 'ugh' factor
    The late communist dictator Deng Xiaoping once said (reputedly) in defence of his introduction of capitalism into the Chinese economy: 'It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice". To me, this is one of the wisest things ever said by a Communist.

    Don Arthur judging from his post entitled "Rape and the Chicago syndrome" doesn't sound like he would agree (permalinks don't seem to be working). He takes issue with my analysis of the 55 year rape sentence *and* unfairly maligns and misrepresents Richard Posner's work. But before I defend Posner, let me defend myself. He says about my argument that too long a rape sentence might increase the marginal propensity of the rapist to murder his victim:

    Two things are odd about this argument. The first is that Soon sees no need to look at the empirical evidence on rape and rapists. The second is that he sees nothing wrong with treating human beings and their bodies as nothing more than consumers and commodities. F-twists or no F-twists, you'd think criminologists might have something useful to add about what encourages and discourages rape and murder. And surely the meaning and value of sex goes beyond preference satisfaction.

    F-twists or no F-twists, you'd think criminologists might have something useful to add about what encourages and discourages rape and murder. And surely the meaning and value of sex goes beyond preference satisfaction.

    Firstly while empirical evidence about rapists may be relevant in determining the magnitude of the effect I discuss it is almost completely irrelevant to the logic of my argument. Perhaps rapists are primarily motivated by feelings of inadequacy and aggression as the bulk of psychological evidence seems to suggest, perhaps they are motivated by past sexual abuse. Just what relevance is any of this to the argument that all other things being equal, people put in the situation where they know that they are going to go to a prison a long time and only marginally longer if they get rid of their witnesses, would be more inclined to get rid of their witnesses?

    Perhaps you could put up the highly implausible thesis that somehow rapists are more squeamish about murder than other criminals - if so this still only goes to the magnitude of the effect in question - and it does sound like a highly implausible thesis. So what exactly does Don have in mind? (Incidentally it is worth noting that some criminologists have argued that some pedophiles may kill their victims not because of any perversions additional to the one they already have but because being branded as a pedophile is so pariah-like that they prefer to cover their tracks - this has many similarities to the argument I've run here)..

    Let's do a little thought experiment - let's make parking violations a capital offence. Will marginally more meter-maids get murdered by otherwise perfectly balanced citizens as a result of making parking violations capital offences? Perhaps Don thinks that the world is full of angels, but I think so. Now apply the same incentive to people who are inclined to rape. Why does he think they would be less inclined to murder given particular incentives than normal people who don't rape?

    Secondly the argument made by Don that "he sees nothing wrong with treating human beings and their bodies as nothing more than consumers and commodities" is just about the silliest argument Don has ever made, which is unprecedented, really. He usually has more reasonable things to say. Note that I am not the only one to have arrived at my conclusion. In fact it can be arrived at with less space than I devoted to it, but the reason I devoted so much space to it and laid out transparently the framework in which it best coheres and the applications that can be generated from this framework, it suddenly becomes objectionable. This letter from a SMH reader arrives at basically the same conclusions as me though he doesn't lay out what the assumptions are underlying the argument:

    The media and politicians were baying for blood and they got it, although a hanging would probably have better fitted the mood.

    The young man did an outrageous act, and he won't walk the streets until he is ready for the pension.

    However, as outrageous as it was, all his victims were in court to see justice. Had he and his cohorts committed the truly worst act, they would have served not a day longer in jail and, with no witnesses, perhaps not a day at all.

    Brogden and Carr are now beating their chests, trying look tougher than the other. They sent a clear message to the criminals. But what exactly is that, Mr Carr? Don't leave any witnesses, maybe?

    Rene de Hesselle, Forestville, August 16.

    Don's argument is also a silly one because he would have us denied the benefits of whatever perspective a rational choice approach to criminal law would give us all because he is uncomfortable with the aesthetic implications or because it does not seem to properly affirm moral intuitions. Whether or not the underlying positive analytical framework underlying a law and economics approach is "ugh" to Don because it involves "treating human beings and their bodies as nothing more than consumers and commodities" doesn't say anything about how human beings and bodies should be treated. All the framework does is treat human beings as if they were engaged in consumption in the context of crime and draw implications from that. It doesn't say we should treat rape as consumption (but even this formulation is misleading - where there are externalities involved, not all consumption is treated equally anyway).

    We all already agree that rape is evil and murder is evil. If, judging by Don's sentence he wanted me to right 500 words on how rape is such a terrible thing and evil, evil, evil I could have easily done that but what would have been the point? We already know that. Given that there is particular antisocial behaviour we want to prevent the issue is that we want to prevent it while minimising any perverse consequences that may make things worse. Surely the rape-murder nexus is a factor worth considering or is all such analysis out of bounds to Don because it relies on 'ugly' assumptions? Why does an economic model have to be a work of beatific moral philosophy? Is it moral to adopt a policy that if left uncorrected may end up with more rape victims murdered in future or shouldn't we even be asking this question because analysing crime this way offends one's squeamishness?

    Don similarly libels Posner. He writes:

    Chicago law and economics theorist Richard Posner analyses sexual behavior as if it were much the same kind of thing as eating cheeseburgers. A person might decide to buy sex (prostitution), barter for it (marriage) or steal it (rape). The important question is not whether there is something degrading or morally wrong with rape but instead which institutional arrangements are most efficient.

    It so happens that I have read the book that Don cites. Sex and reason is a magnificent work of a brilliant mind, ambitious in scope and an enormous feat of learning. Posner trawls through psychology, anthropology, sexology, literature, classical scholarship, sociology and other fields to integrate facts into his theories and comes up with a range of testable conclusions about the diversity of human sexual behaviour. He also comes up with a range of proposal, some which may strike people as outlandish but most of which are in the spirit of uncompromising liberal humanism, unblinkered by the worthless prejudices of religion and ad hoc moralising.It is rthe same spirit which powered Bentham's efforts to reform the English criminal law and though you could also say about Bentham that some of his conclusions were somewhat dodgy, on the whole he probably did a lot of good.

    Again, Don seems to think that everyone who writes a book is obliged to spill out a thousand verities about morality just to prove that they're on the side of the angels. We already know that rape is wrong, Don and I'm sure that Posner knows that rape is wrong. Posner didn't set out to write a book on moral philosophy so he is under no obligation to fell trees to show that rape is morally wrong. That's redundant. Underlying Posner's work is utilitarianism and though utilitarianism is something that doesn't satisfy everyone as an adequate justification of morality, most of Posner's work is aimed precisely at demonstrating that there need not be any conflict between utilitarian objectives of maximising welfare (or efficiency as Don puts it) and moral intuitions. Whether it succeeds in that task is a completely separate issue from whether or not the book that Posner writes is the one that Don wants to read.

    Now Don does hit the nail on the head on one thing. I do believe (as does Posner apparently) that most of moral philosophy has been almost completely useless and fruitless insofar as its contribution to good public policy goes. I believe that most philosophy with the exception of perhaps David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Popper (unless you count Friedrich Hayek as a philosopher) has been almost thoroughly unenlightening about the world and contributed little to our understanding of it. This is not to deny that philosophy is fun to read. I spent many a happy day in my youth ploughing through Plato's dialogues. However, I think the work of Darwin and everything flowing onwards from Darwin onwards (particularly the neo-Darwinian theories of sociobiology and neo-Darwinian theories of the mind leavened with contributions from neuropsychology) has contributed more to our understanding of human society and human nature than anything produced by moral philosophy. If Darwin had never been born it would have been a greater tragedy than if all the major moral philosophers with their windy discourses had never been born. I believe a fruitful moral philosophy will ultimately be grounded on some utilitarian and naturalistic foundations, combined with what would be best called economic analysis eg.analysis of strategic behaviour as in game theory. But that is a topic for another day and way beyond the scope of this post.
    In his posting below, Heath corrects a gap in my analysis. As he points out, there are *two* ways of increasing the deterrence value of our criminal laws - increasing the probability of being caught and increasing the length of the sentence. Heath favours the former but I don't see why we can't do both. Heath is certainly correct to point out something I overlooked - namely that increasing all sentences in line with a 55 year sentence for gang rapes may well end up consuming too many resources given prisoners need to be housed and fed. Having said that there is probably some efficient solution at which sentencing at least in *practice* if not on the statute books could be increased closer to the widely applauded Finnane-like levels across the board combined with an increase in probability of apprehension of criminals.

    This raises the issue of where to find the resources to increase the probability of apprehension. Here's one method that won't involve higher overall taxes on current revenue sources or spending (and may even lead to revenue gains) - decriminalise or legalise all currently illicit drugs and whack a tax on them. Resources should be freed up in policing away from harrasing drug users and prostitutes and 'setting up' gays in public toilets and towards combatting real crimes which involve the violation of person and property.
    Idiot of the week

    "You're so lucky in Ireland, England and Spain. Everyone there already knows what it's like to have inexplicable terrorist violence."

    ~ Susan Sarandon on the S11 attacks (found via Tim Blair)

    Yeah, Susan. I'm sure Africa is also lucky to have so much famine and an AIDS epidemic - I'm praying we'll have some of that too just so I know what it's like.
    Elitist returns
    A warm welcome back to David Morgan who returns to the Blogosphere after a long exile to the world of baby and diapers (not that he's fully out of that yet, of course).
    Crime and Punishment

    You can add me to the list of people not impressed by the recent 55 year jail term for the leader of a group of gang rapists. In part, my opposition is based on the same arguments that Jason has used (here, and here) that such a sentence may actually create incentives for rapists to murder their victims. This is based on the idea that murdering the victim reduces the probability of being caught.

    This reasoning implies that whether someone commits a crime is a function of two variables, the probability of being caught, and the length of the sentence. Now, here is where I depart from Jason and others who advocate an across the board increase in the severity of punishments in order to deter crime.

    I would argue that past a certain point, the deterrent effect of increased sentences is subject to fairly sharp diminishing returns. After all, how much more of a deterrent effect is a 30 year jail term versus 25 years, or even a 50 year term versus a 30 year term?

    How does one deter crime then? Answer - by actually increasing the probability of being caught and prosecuted. I would suspect a big part of the reason the rapists in question went on such a spree is the confidence they would get away with the crime. Even if they only faced a ten year jail term, I seriously doubt they would have committed these crimes if they had believed getting caught and prosecuted was almost a certainty.

    The most important part of the recent high profile rape prosecutions then isn’t the length of the jail terms handed out, but that the number of publicised cases should (ideally) act as a signal to potential rapists that they will be caught.

    Locking up all these criminals for extra time is going to cost a fortune, with perhaps diminishing marginal returns in terms of deterrence. Instead, lets spend more resources on getting a police force and prosecution that can actually increase the probability of conviction.




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